Benefits of Outdoor Learning
by Danielle Dowling
Outdoor learning time is so important for children these days, especially with the growing amount of hours kids are spending in front of screens and digital media. Playing and learning outdoors improves mood and behavior, decreases stress, engages children in sensory experiences and allows for messiness, improves fine and gross motor skills, allows for risky play and staying physically active, and access to new learning opportunities that are typically not found indoors.
Have you ever noticed how a screaming baby will instantly be calmed when walked outside? Or a young child’s mood will dramatically change once they are able to play outdoors? I’m sure you have experienced one or both of these instances, but did you know this isn’t a coincidence? Playing outside has been scientifically linked to overall better moods. Teachers have also noticed that when their students are given free time to play outdoors, their behaviors drastically change inside the classroom. In one study, 83% of the participants, preschool age to adolescence, showed improved cognitive, behavioral, and mental health, specifically in their attention span and fewer signs of depression. This study also found there to be an overall positive association in children’s physical health when given access to play in an outdoor space. Most of these outdoor spaces were found near the home or at school. (Fyfe-Johnson et al., 2021)
Outdoor play also allows for children to get messy and engage in sensory play. This can be as simple as digging in the dirt/sand or having a facilitated sensory experience by a parent or teacher. Some examples of this could be exploring a bin of dry beans/rice or playing in shaving cream! There are countless ways to create sensory experiences for children outside which in return helps them learn about the world around them!
In addition to their sensory experiences, children are also improving fine and gross motor skills as well as their hand-eye coordination which are all vital for their growth. This can be seen when they are scooping and pouring or running and jumping. Climbing trees and even up slides helps with risky play, which is described as “thrilling and exciting play, that may involve challenges, heights, speed, tools, rough and tumble play, and testing limits, with the possibility of physical injury.” (Spencer et al., 2021) Risky play has its own benefits like “increased physical activity levels, decreased sedentary behaviour, improved mental health, and social benefits.” (Spencer et al., 2021)
Access to new learning opportunities is everywhere when children are outside. This could be watching a caterpillar form into a chrysalis, a bee finding pollen on a flower or an ant carrying crumbs back to its ant hill. It creates an interest in nature, how we can care for our Earth and the creatures that live in it. If we are able to spark this sense of appreciation of nature in our youth, I can only imagine what our world would look like in the future.
All of this to say that it is vital that our children get adequate outdoor play and learning time. Simply allowing them time outside, whether it’s free play during recess or moderately structured learning, like in an outdoor classroom, both are just as important for children and their development!
Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Hazelhurst, M. F., Perrins, S. P., Bratman, G. N., Thomas, R., Garrett, K. A., Hafferty, K. R., Cullaz, T. M., Marcuse, E. K., & Tandon, P. S. (2021). Nature and Children’s Health: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics, 148(4). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-049155
Spencer, R. A., Joshi, N., Branje, K., Murray, N., Kirk, S. F., & Stone, M. R. (2021). Early Childhood Educator Perceptions of Risky Play in an Outdoor Loose Parts Intervention. AIMS Public Health, 8(2), 213-228. https://doi.org/10.3934/publichealth.2021017